Thinking like Einstein

Chris Lengerich
April 12th, 2023

Some koans I've found helpful for thinking like Einstein (towards grand unifying theories and annus mirabilis representation cascades). Adapt them to your situation.

  1. The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function[1] - this is the root of all mysteries.
  2. The tension between a multimodal, multi-threaded environment and its necessary compression into one mode to motivate action is one of core dialectics of our psychology.
  3. To think in 3rd-person about multiple modes - what scenarios are possible? How many threads and feedback loops are running? What ideas are disconnected? Can you walk the ladder of abstraction up and down and forward/backward in time? How early is your idea?
  4. To organize action - what's simple, concrete and valuable?
  5. 3D visualization is O(n) better than verbal reasoning since you can think in parallel threads and feedback loops. When swimming, to work on problems and count laps at the same time, I visualize an abacus. One of the threads moves slowly down based on the laps, and the other thread is free to explore the problems I've preloaded before the workout.

    As Einstein once wrote to Hadamard, "(A) The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be “voluntarily” reproduced and combined. There is, of course, a certain connection between those elements and relevant logical concepts. It is also clear that the desire to arrive finally at logically connected concepts is the emotional basis of this rather vague play with the above-mentioned elements. But taken from a psychological viewpoint, this combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought — before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of signs which can be communicated to others."

  6. The purpose for a company or movement is to turn secrets into miracles. Secrets come from opposed ideas and curiosity. Miracles come from excellence, coolness, winning, scale (it helps to have secrets). Both are important, but different.
  7. Memes spread by weak links (secrets are normally underinvested because most people don't think they're valuable, but that perception gap won't go away until you make a miracle happen, no matter the logos). Pre-miracle, who are the people who are unfairly biased towards you or your idea?
  8. Any gap between perception and reality is an edge (this is another fundamental dialectic of psychology), but you may need creativity, boldness and funding to arbitrage it. There is always a way in which it's a weakness.
  9. A fundamental dialectic in psychology is between people vs. ideas (mimetics vs. memetics). As Tenet elegantly asks, "who's the Protagonist?"[2] 3rd-person thinkers would say loops and processes, 1st-person thinkers would say people. The highest value comes from engaging both 1st-person and 3rd-person thought simultaneously.
  10. What's underinvested? What miracles will create the memes that make it appropriately invested?
  11. Our psychology is simultaneously miraculous (emergent at multiple levels) and comical (perception != reality). I enjoy the wonder and am pragmatic about the comedy :)
  12. One hypothesis is that our psychology has a lot to do with being an efficient learning agent. See Executive Function: A Contrastive Value Policy for Resampling and Relabeling Perceptions via Hindsight Summarization?

[1] F. Scott Fitzgerald, also Ben Kenobi.
[2] Who's the Protagonist?